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Russia Isn't Trying to Start a War in the Arctic — It's Just Keeping Out the Riffraff

Russia's military build-up in the Arctic isn't an aggressive short-term project. It's a long-term effort aimed at blocking US power projection in the Arctic.
Photo by Vitaly Kuzmin

The Arctic is heating up, and not just because of global warming. On Thursday, Norway's military chief announced plans to modernize and expand its forces to counter Russia's growing military presence in the Arctic, which has led to increased tensions in an already strained relationship.

The announcement from Norway comes less than two weeks after Russia's Northern Fleet wrapped up a large-scale exercise in the Arctic that involved nearly 50 warships, more than 10 aircraft, and several hundred service members, which likely added to the pressure felt by Scandinavian neighbors. And the exercise was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Russia's military strategy for the Arctic.


Related: Global Warming Means the US Actually Needs More Icebreakers

Among Russia's plans are the reopening of numerous Cold War-era bases, the placement of surface-to-air missiles optimized for use in the region's freezing temperatures, and even the possible implementation of specially designed Arctic drones. There's also a big disparity in search-and-rescue capabilities — Russia has 41 icebreakers compared to America's two, and Russia is planning 10 new search-and-rescue stations. Finally, there is the fact that the US and its allies are dealing with ever-increasing tensions with Russia pretty much everywhere south of the Arctic Circle as well.

Nevertheless, experts say that there's no need for igloo fallout shelters. Yet.

"The Russians have a right to protect the Arctic," said Lawson Brigham, a professor of Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Are they going to use that leverage to take over the place? I don't think so. And even if they wanted to, they couldn't."

Since 1996, Russia, along with the US and six other Arctic states, has been a member of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that deals with economic and climate issues facing the Arctic states and the region's indigenous people. Russia, for its part, has acted like a good neighbor during its time in the council, working to prevent oil pollution and helping to promote scientific cooperation.

"One of our priorities in the Arctic is to keep balance between the economic activity and the preservation of the unique environment, respect for the culture, and traditional way of life of indigenous peoples," Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week at a meeting between Arctic Council members in Russia. "And, of course, we have consistently advocated the strengthening of cooperation with member states of the Arctic Council in all directions."


A source familiar with Russia's role in the Arctic Council told VICE News that others in the region don't currently view the Russian military buildup as a threat. With its large Arctic population and long coastline, it simply makes sense that Russia would want to invest in infrastructure there, which would include military bases, ships, and weapons systems. The Russian buildup may also be a show of power — not for Russia's Arctic neighbors, but for outside actors like China, who may be thinking about heading north.

"The Arctic itself doesn't play much of a role in Arctic security relations— it all depends on relations elsewhere," said Ekaterina Klimenko, researcher for the Armed Conflict and Conflict Management Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "Both Russia and the NATO states are sort of in this spiral of insecurity with these military exercises. Russia does something, then NATO does something. Russia has NATO in mind as a potential adversary, and some of the NATO states feel the same. So in this situation, when this is happening, I wouldn't see any improvement of relations in the near future."

Watch the VICE News documentary The Russians Are Coming: NATO's Frontier

The fact is, there's not much to fight over in the Arctic. The region is still basically frozen solid during most of the year, meaning trade has yet to noticeably increase through Arctic waters. And the possibility of oil isn't likely to cause any spats, as most of the resources are not in international waters, but in territorial waters and exclusive economic zones — regions within 200 nautical miles of a country's shores over which a country has exclusive rights to economic resources.


That, however, doesn't mean the Arctic will remain conflict-free. A big enough war taking place elsewhere could lead to war everywhere, including the Arctic.

"Things are going downhill in our relationship with Russia, and there's no reason to suspect the Arctic will be immune," said Tom Fedyszyn, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College.

Russia appears to be looking far into the military future of the region, preparing for the possibility of conflict through what many believe is an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy in the Arctic. Until recently, A2/AD has primarily been discussed with regard to China and Chinese actions in the South China Sea. It's also, according to Fedyszyn, used as a sort of shorthand to explain the US being denied access to a place it thinks is important. In the Western Pacific, this has been accomplished via China's island reclamation and military buildup on those islands, and through its tough stance on passage through its Exclusive Economic Zone. Not only do these actions prevent the US from being able to project power in the region, but in the event of war with China, it could make it pretty damn hard for the US to get a solid foothold in the Asian Pacific.

Related: Russia's Massive Military Exercise in the Arctic Is Utterly Baffling

"We're looking at an emerging picture of anti-access/[area-denial], and that's a very different message than we had seen even 12 to 16 months ago," Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said at a forum in August. According to Klimenko, Russia has been slowly fortifying its position in the Arctic since at least 2008, and their current strategy focuses on long-term defense rather than short-term aggression.

"What they're doing," Fedyszyn said, "is fortifying their real estate."

Follow Jennifer Peters on Twitter: @EditrixJen

Photo by Vitaly Kuzmin